In the 1970s and 80s snooker seemed to be never off our screens and the players were household names. During those halcyon days Preston Guild Hall played host to the prestigious UK Championships before the event moved elsewhere in the late 90s. Since then, snooker and the Guild Hall have both experienced mixed fortunes. The British public’s interest in snooker has gradually waned and it’s said that there are no characters in snooker anymore. As for the Guild Hall, its prospects sank so low that, at one point, it was threatened with demolition before being bought by local businessman, Simon Rigby, in 2014.
Thankfully, a major restoration has been undertaken at the hall and the venue is now once more host to a major snooker tournament in the form of the Ladbrokes World Grand Prix. This year’s event, which featured the world’s top 32 players, was held in Preston in late February 19.
My friend and I attended the second semi-final that saw current World Snooker champion, Mark Selby, take on China’s Ding Junhui. Once the leading players came from a small handful of countries; today snooker is a global sport. It enjoys huge popularity in the Far East, helped by the rise of players such as Ding Junhui, who has been at the top of the sport for more than a decade.
An attempt has clearly been made to make snooker more appealing to a modern audience. The players are introduced to the crowd with the kind of razzamatazz that is usually reserved for darts tournaments. Each comes complete with his own nickname and walk-on music. I’m not convinced it really works. Selby may be called the ‘Jester from Leicester’, but it’s difficult to imagine him launching a stand-up career if he ever becomes bored of snooker. Maybe the nickname is meant to be ironic as Selby has a reputation for grinding out results with impassive steely focus and determination.
As the semi-final began to unfold, this soon became evident. The first frame alone lasted nearly 50 minutes as both players gave a textbook exhibition of impressive safety play. At this stage my companion cheerfully calculated that the best of 11 frames match would last for more than nine hours if it went the full distance. That first frame was won by Selby. This set the trend for the match with Selby’s successes stemming from the type of attritional safety play for which he is renowned. In contrast, Junhui was the heavier scoring player, with three breaks of over 90.
It seemed inevitable that the match would go the full distance and so it proved. Just after midnight, with the score at 5-5, the deciding frame commenced. With a break of 83, Junhui proved victorious and set up a final against Ronnie O’Sullivan. However, the following day Junhui was not able to reproduce the form he showed in the semi and O’Sullivan came out the comfortable winner with a score of 10-3.
Modern snooker is not blessed with an abundance of over-the-top personalities that the modern media loves. But the quality of snooker to which we were treated on Saturday evening was exceptional and the contest between two wholly committed players riveting. In the hope that Preston Guild Hall is awarded the tournament again next year, I plan to make a return visit.